But penicillin, the jet engine and even the nuclear bomb were on the drawing board before the first shots were fired. They would have happened anyway. Conflict spurs innovation, and the Cold War played its part — we would never have got to the Moon without it. But someone has to pay for everything. The economic boom came to an end in the s with the collapse of the Bretton Woods trading agreements and the oil shocks.
So did the great age of innovation. Case closed, you might say. The s recession was temporary: we came out of it soon enough. There is more than enough money for a new Apollo, a new Concorde and a new Green Revolution. These fruits include the cultivation of unused land, mass education, and the capitalisation by technologists of the scientific breakthroughs made in the 19th century. It is possible that the advances we saw in the period were similarly quick wins, and that further progress is much harder. But history suggests that this explanation is fanciful.
During periods of technological and scientific expansion, it has often seemed that a plateau has been reached, only for a new discovery to shatter old paradigms completely. The most famous example was when, in , Lord Kelvin declared physics to be more or less over, just a few years before Einstein proved him comprehensively wrong. Lack of money, then, is not the reason that innovation has stalled.
What we do with our money might be, however. Capitalism was once the great engine of progress.
It was capitalism in the 18th and 19th centuries that built roads and railways, steam engines and telegraphs another golden era. Capital drove the industrial revolution.
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Now, wealth is concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite. That has consequences. Firstly, there is a lot more for the hyper-rich to spend their money on today than there was in the golden age of philanthropy in the 19th century. Furthermore, as the French economist Thomas Piketty pointed out in Capital , money now begets money more than at any time in recent history.
When wealth accumulates so spectacularly by doing nothing, there is less impetus to invest in genuine innovation. In the UK, that trend levelled off a few years later, to reach a historic low point in Is it possible that there could be some relationship between equality and innovation? As success comes to be defined by the amount of money one can generate in the very short term, progress is in turn defined not by making things better, but by rendering them obsolete as rapidly as possible so that the next iteration of phones, cars or operating systems can be sold to a willing market.
Half a century ago, makers of telephones, TVs and cars prospered by building products that their buyers knew or at least believed would last for many years. No one sells a smartphone on that basis today; the new ideal is to render your own products obsolete as fast as possible.
The golden quarter
Thus the purpose of the iPhone 6 is not to be better than the iPhone 5, but to make aspirational people buy a new iPhone and feel better for doing so. In a very unequal society, aspiration becomes a powerful force. This is new, and the paradoxical result is that true innovation, as opposed to its marketing proxy, is stymied.
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In the s, venture capital was willing to take risks, particularly in the emerging electronic technologies. Now it is more conservative, funding start-ups that offer incremental improvements on what has gone before. During the Golden Quarter, we saw a boom in public spending on research and innovation. And so we find that nearly all the advances of this period came either from tax-funded universities or from popular movements.
The first electronic computers came not from the labs of IBM but from the universities of Manchester and Pennsylvania. Even the 19th-century analytical engine of Charles Babbage was directly funded by the British government. The early internet came out of the University of California, not Bell or Xerox.
In short, the great advances in medicine, materials, aviation and spaceflight were nearly all pump-primed by public investment. But since the s, an assumption has been made that the private sector is the best place to innovate. The story of the past four decades might seem to cast doubt on that belief. And yet we cannot pin the stagnation of ingenuity on a decline in public funding.
Aeon for Friends
Tax spending on research and development has, in general, increased in real and relative terms in most industrialised nations even since the end of the Golden Quarter. There must be another reason why this increased investment is not paying more dividends. C ould it be that the missing part of the jigsaw is our attitude towards risk?
Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as the saying goes. The assault on smallpox, spearheaded by a worldwide vaccination campaign, probably killed several thousand people, though it saved tens of millions more. In the s, new medicines were rushed to market. Not all of them worked and a few thalidomide had disastrous consequences. But the overall result was a medical boom that brought huge benefits to millions.
Today, this is impossible. The time for a new drug candidate to gain approval in the US rose from less than eight years in the s to nearly 13 years by the s. Many promising new treatments now take 20 years or more to reach the market. It would not be an exaggeration to say that people are dying in the cause of making medicine safer. Risk-aversion has become a potent weapon in the war against progress on other fronts. In , the Swiss genetic engineer Ingo Potrykus developed a variety of rice in which the grain, rather than the leaves, contain a large concentration of Vitamin A.
Deficiency in this vitamin causes blindness and death among hundreds of thousands every year in the developing world. He begins with the presumption that scientific and artistic progress requires a background of political security. From this claim, he argues that the arts and sciences cannot arise in a society without the rule of law. Hume also asserts that no monarchy can develop the rule of law on its own, while republics must develop the rule of law if they are to survive at all. He concludes that the arts and sciences first emerge in republics, not monarchies , 59— Civilized monarchies are those that have learned the rule of law from neighboring republics.
Hume even says that the arts progress more quickly in civilized monarchies than in republics, because they are useful for flattering monarchs. On the other hand, according to Hume, the general population is more impressed by scientific discoveries with obvious technological applications than by artistic creations. Therefore the sciences progress more quickly in republics, in which the general public holds power, than in monarchies 68— Hume thinks that countries can affect each other's progress.
How to Structure a Theory of Knowledge Essay
For instance, competition can spur greater progress, and isolation can cause a country to stall 64—5. On the other hand, countries can intimidate each other into inactivity Hume also asserts that the arts and sciences cannot progress indefinitely in a single country. One they reach a certain height, members of the next generation are too intimidated by their predecessors to strike out on their own 75— A second Scottish Enlightenment figure, Adam Smith — , is often regarded as an economist, but in fact he began his career as a philosopher.
His first work, The Theory of the Moral Sentiments , addressed the philosophy of moral judgment and action. It is therefore not surprising that the Wealth of Nations , the work on economic growth for which he is best known, has a deeper philosophical resonance. Smith's central observation is that, in economic life, it often happens that individuals in pursuit of their self-interest nevertheless contribute to the common good , — Humans engage in this activity for self-interested reasons.